Lunch

Too Many Cooks: Childhood Lunches

September 24, 2014

You'll be hearing from the staff at Food52 in Too Many Cooks, our group column in which we pool our answers to questions about food, cooking, life, and more.

There is a lot about growing up and going to school that is semi-traumatic: The time you called your male teacher "Dad"; the time you got a nose bleed in math class; the time you sat in ketchup in the cafeteria; and every time you had to change into your gym uniform. Many of these moments inevitably happened in the lunch room, when you opened your bag to reveal something sour-smelling and foreign-sounding. "Mooooooom," you would groan under your breath, with a dramatic eye roll.

In honor of the month of September and forgiveness exercises and some happy school memories, too, we asked the Food52 staffers:  

What did you take to school for lunch as a child? Did you pack your own lunch, or did someone else do the honors? 

Were you the cool kid with Dunkaroos, or were you the one trying to trade in baby carrots and boxed raisins for Lunchables and Oreos? Tell us in the comments!

Danny: My Daddy used to pack me bologna-mustard sandwiches and a box of Yoo-Hoo. It's okay guys -- I turned out fine.

Posie: Sensitive subject for me: For years I tried to steal bites of Lunchables and Dunkaroos and Gushers and pizza bagels. But the closest thing we had to processed food in our house was Shredded Wheat. My mom is a farmer who milks a cow every day and she made everything from scratch (from bread to cheese) which was super, super embarrassing at the time. (And it's funny because that's so cool now.)

All four of us kids packed our own lunches together every morning; often my mom would make pizza dough the night before and let us put on our own toppings to take for lunch -- that was the best thing. And I almost always took whole strawberries with a little Tupperware of powdered sugar for dipping as my dessert.

More: Maybe you don't milk cows regularly, but you can still pack homemade pizza dough for your kids (or yourself).

Gabriella P: Posie, I'm with you! My parents were both foreign and health food-obsessed, so most lunchtimes played out like the Moussaka scene in "My Big Fat Greek Wedding." All I wanted were Lunchables. We eventually reached a middle ground with prosciutto sandwiches.

Merrill: We ate school lunch (and yes, my favorite was alphabet soup and grilled cheese day), but if we had a field trip or something, my mom would pack cucumber and cream cheese sandwiches on white Pepperidge Farm thin-sliced white bread. Another specialty was bologna and cottage cheese roll-ups. Sounds gross, but it was actually kind of perfect.

Amanda: My mother used to pack peanut butter, butter, and jelly sandwiches -- PBBJs, as we called them. Definitely an improvement on the original, especially if you use salted butter. 

  

Jackie: My mom was big into cream cheese and jelly sandwiches on challah. It's kind of just like eating dessert. 

Lauren K: My mom made me lunch every day -- I hated being one of the only kids who brought lunch, but in hindsight -- great job, Mom! She often made me chicken salad sandwiches with avocado on this amazing pillowy Japanese bread that I think is called shokupan -- it comes in a perfect rectangle and the pieces are about 3/4-inch thick. 

Erin: In elementary school, I was ostracized by my friends at lunch due to my extreme love of cilantro. I ate it like lettuce on my sandwiches, which was widely regarded as gross (but seriously, try it -- it's not just for bán mìh). On rare and special occasions, my mom would pack me her homemade salsa and tortilla chips; those had very high trade value in the lunchroom (biggest score ever was six Oreos for one chip with salsa).

More: Make your own oven-baked tortilla chips and you just might be able to trade up in the lunch room, too.

Then the conversation devolved into a discussion on Dunkaroos...

Marian: I never got Dunkaroos. I always wanted Dunkaroos.

Emi: I was never allowed to have Dunkaroos. Or Fruit Roll-Ups. Or Fruit by the Foot. Or Lunchables. Or Cup Noodles. I'd always try to trade in my Asian pears but my friends had no idea what they were. Only on very special occasions did I get a Milano. 

Will: My parents were considerably more mainstream than what seems to be the going rate here. I showered in Dunkaroos. It explains so much... 

Amanda: Can someone explain what Dunkaroos are? 

How do you feel about Dunkaroos? Share in the comments below!

20 Comments

Michelle H. January 11, 2016
My siblings and I had a PBJ, baloney, or cheese sandwich with a package of potato chips or Fritos, and a fried fruit pie or a small pecan pie. We were expected to buy milk to go with it. However, we only brought lunch on fishstick day (Friday). School lunches back in the 50s and 60s were actually quite good and I loved Flying Saucer day (a really cool giant cookie).
 
Katie S. September 25, 2014
The really cool processed food/status symbol at my school was Capri Sun juice bags. I remember one girl saying, with a snobby look at us kids with healthy real-food packed lunches, "I know why these are so expensive. 60% real juice!" <br />It's too hilarious when I think about it now.
 
Crystal O. September 25, 2014
I was that kid that no one EVER wanted to trade with - thanks to my Central European mom who believed in the virtues of 'grainy' bread (!) and cold cuts like head cheese or braunschweiger. Never even tried peanut butter (my parents: What's that?) until I was a grown up. Now I'm raising kids in California and they never cease to amaze my parents with their 'weird' food choices - they love sushi (What! You LET them eat RAW fish!) and goat cheese and persimmons.
 
Kei September 25, 2014
Peanut butter on old bread, an apple and one or two small processed/bulk cookies, some times there were no apples, which was awful because that was the best thing in the bag. Every single sack lunch for at least 9 years until in high school I rebelled, got a part time job so I could buy a lunch sandwich at a 'Natural Foods' store less than a block from school. Whole wheat multi-seed soft bread spread with herbed cream cheese and topped with apple slices, toasted walnuts and sprouts - my life changed dramatically in 10th grade thanks to those sandwiches!
 
jinlee September 24, 2014
Sometimes my mom packed me an apple fritter wrapped in cellophane. Other times she would pack bulgogi on rice. Good times...
 
Droplet September 24, 2014
There used to be a bakery on my way to school and I would get two different pastries in the morning, usually one sweet and one savory, and eat one of them for breakfast and pack the other for lunch. I think those things motivated me to get up in the morning.
 
nannydeb September 24, 2014
Lunchables and Dunkaroos were way after I left school, but we used to eat a bag of chips and a Diet Dr Pepper for lunch. Seemed logical at the time.
 
Erin W. September 24, 2014
Dunkaroos were little cookies shaped like kangaroos (like teddy grahams or animal crackers, that kind of texture/taste) that came with a little tub of frosting to dunk them in. I always wanted them too. :(
 
Loves F. September 24, 2014
This is hilarious. My mom made my lunch until the day I graduated HS, and it was never fancy or name-brand stuff... mostly ham or pbj sammies with a baggie of 2 store-brand knockoff cookies. But sometimes she threw in "weird" stuff like a whole artichoke, chicken paprikash, or salmon dip... all of which grossed out my classmates!
 
Cathy M. September 24, 2014
My Mom would make me plain cheese sandwiches. By lunch time, they were all warm and melty :)
 
Nadja September 24, 2014
Well, I go to school and I pack my lunch every night. I really like to bring salads with chicken, feta and pasta or pizza rolls, club sandwiches, basically anything homemade. For dessert I usually bring a crisp bread with honey and pb, which is like magic because the crisp bread stays crispy, or yoghurt with granola!
 
Shalini September 24, 2014
Amanda, did you ever get the explanation on Dunkaroos? Fruit roll ups were around in the 80's. But lunchables? Are you guys born after the millennium? ;) Great job. Lauren K, I want your school lunch.
 
Grace F. September 24, 2014
I made my own lunch and was a pb&j girl through and through...thank goodness I didn't have a peanut allergy.
 
HalfPint September 24, 2014
Made my own lunch from the time I was six. Both my parents worked long hours to support 7 kids and themselves, so it was PBJ EVERY DAY for like 2 years. Still can't at a PBJ to this day. <br /><br />And I always wanted Pringles, but there was never a good coupon for them (Mom was a fanatical coupon-er, if there wasn't a coupon for something, we didn't get it).
 
HalfPint September 24, 2014
Oops, meant "I can't look at PBJ to this day".
 
Loves F. September 24, 2014
OH man! I always wanted pringles too...but those were way too fancy/expensive w/out coupons! I actually remember the first time I had pringles, bc I rarely had them it really stood out!
 
Allyn September 24, 2014
Made my own every day. Nothing fancy, and probably the reason why I'm not a huge fan of a simple sandwich these days.<br />I wonder what we'll give our kids/how we'll scar them. Go with their dad's heritage and pack SPAM musubi? It could happen.
 
aargersi September 24, 2014
I have no sweet clue what a dunkaroo is! And um, lunchables were not invented when I was in school. I ate the gross school lunch which REALLY meant buying Funnybones and/or Bugles. Meaning, I ate crap.
 
Author Comment
Sarah J. September 24, 2014
BUGLES! I was never allowed to have bugles and I wanted them so. badly. Mostly just to put them on all 10 of my fingers and rap the table.
 
mrslarkin September 24, 2014
Omg I LOVE bugles!<br /><br />My favorite lunch of all time was Stella D'Oro biscotti and my Charlie Brown thermos full of cafe latte.